Thursday, August 23, 2007

Writing with an Unspecified Gender: Plural Pronouns

To get an idea of just how muddy the waters of pronoun use are, try reading the first page of this thread about writing role playing games (RPGs). This level of consensus matches more technical grammar discussions, but shows the problem in a less preachy way. I thought it more fun as an example.

Cross My T makes a convincing case for the singular “their” on their wittily-titled page, Everbody loves their Jane Austen. The argument rambles on through dozens of examples in classic literature but they make their case in the second paragraph. They point out that the singular “their” was used and accepted until grammar snobs started regulating English under the rules of Latin grammar. You can read similar assertions in many places, including those cited on this page.

I admit that this argument sways me. People have been reading these books for centuries without finding the pronouns strange or confusing. If using "they" in referring to a person of undetermined gender worked for Jane Austen and HG Wells how can I object?

One problem comes when you are talking about a single person in relation to a pair or group of something else. “The player threw their dice and they landed on an orange square.” What landed - the dice or the player? Using plural pronouns confuses your readers in such circumstances. This distracts them from what you are saying and weakens the impact of your writing. It may cause readers to abandon you entirely and turn to another source.

Consider an unknown hotel guest how has the nasty habit of shaving without cleaning up afterwards. A note has been left by the person who cleaned the room explaining the situation to the manager.

“I won't clean Room 312 again. They leave their hair all over the bath after they shave themselves and it's nasty.”

Regardless of the even nastier things that hotel cleaning staff undoubtedly remove every day, we now have a plural guest with a singular verb. Would you use the invented “themself” or “theirself” to make “they shave” agree?

This has gone on long enough for one day. On Sunday I'll post arguments for and against using other pronoun forms. The variety of invented, gender-neutral constructs surprised me. You could grow accustomed to any of them but no one set has gained general acceptance.




Of course, because no one set has gained general acceptance, it's hard to know what one person or another will consider bad grammar.



Some of the "made up" ideas are really jarring, especially when you don't know they're being used. The first time I ran across one I thought it was a typo. I figured it out after a few sentences but it was very distracting.